God died when I reached twenty-two but I refused to accept it. I had too much at stake. For four years I’d studied in a yeshiva – a Jewish seminary for Talmudic learning – and I was good at it. I had never been good at anything before. God’s death would destroy my self-esteem. For two years I felt increasing self-loathing as my identity came crashing down.
Among the reasons I invested everything in Judaism were my beliefs about life. As a teenager, I learned that I could only be happy if I had meaning in my life. I learned this from rabbis, motivational speakers, and my own perfect adolescent logic. While I matured, rabbis drilled one important truth into me: a life without God cannot have meaning. After all, if we just happen to exist then we have no purpose, and suffering is all for nothing. Since we’re going to die anyway, why go on living?
More than “just” meaning was at stake. Morality itself could only exist if God had made it so. Morality constructed by humans would always be flawed. It would depend on the times and what felt good and what you just assumed. If God did not exist, there was no such thing as being a good person.
When I began to acknowledge the inconsistencies in Judaism and realized that the God of religion might not exist, I could not afford to accept it. It would take away the reason I had for living. A life without God would not be worth it. I believed this even after I became an atheist.
I found out that living without God had its charms. I no longer kept kosher. I could go places and do things on Saturdays. I could masturbate without guilt. I could drink booze and smoke weed as much as I wanted.
Significantly, I could finally embrace being gay. But that’s a topic for another day.
Freedom allowed me access to pleasures I’d been afraid of. But it could not keep me from suffering. I had to make sure that the pleasure outweighed the pain – that’s how life could be worth it.
Some people manage to live like this, but I could not. As the excitement of freedom wore down, I came face to face with the cold reality of life. I had to find a vocation and go to work every morning. I had to find a boyfriend and keep him around for good.
Then my dad died, with no resolution to his life or our troubled relationship.
With no meaning in my life, I could no longer handle it.
Meaning is overrated
I love life now, and it took a long and destructive depression to get to this point. I had to learn that my core assumption was wrong.
Unfortunately, religion promotes the assumption, but it is not only religious people who believe it. That assumption is that life in this world is full of suffering and that only reward or fulfilment or pleasure can make it worth seeing through. If you are married to someone you love, with children you love, and a job you love – you’re doing great. If you lose all of that, you either need to get it back or there needs to be a reason.
Victor Frankl – a psychotherapist who was not religious – even made meaning the central tenet of his therapeutic process.
But meaning is overrated. Yes, meaning is an anchor. Just like an anchor it keeps you steady, but does not allow you to move. It is external. It makes you dependent on something outside of you, and you have to pray that something never goes away.
The wonder of meaningless existence
The idea that “if life has no meaning I might as well be dead” is based on an assumption: life can be extremely painful and that makes it worthless. The Talmud even says as much.
Yet, if we change that base assumption, life can be truly free – and incredible. Stop thinking about life in terms of being “worth it” or not. We are here and don’t need to justify being here. Instead, take a look at the great atheist thinkers — Friedrich Nietzsche, Aldous Huxley, Henry Miller. All chose to accept that pain is a part of life, and only by accepting pain can we experience the true beauty in existence.
“Life moves on, whether we act as cowards or heroes. Life has no other discipline to impose, if we would but realize it, than to accept life unquestioningly. Everything we shut our eyes to, everything we run away from, everything we deny, denigrate or despise, serves to defeat us in the end. What seems nasty, painful, evil, can become a source of beauty, joy, and strength, if faced with an open mind. Every moment is a golden one for him who has the vision to recognize it as such”
God says that life is only good if you’re dependent on him, otherwise it’s just long and terrible. I hope that God stays dead, and I can live life for what it is.